Steve Buscemi

Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

The least violent part of Reservoir Dogs is the bloodiest. One of the characters is in a pool of blood, slipping on it as he delivers his dialogue. Director Tarantino finds a moment of Shakespearian tragedy and builds a film to it. He uses stylish ultra-violence, Dogs is visceral with the blood, but the action itself implies a far more frugal production. He uses seventies music, but not the trendy stuff. His somewhat fractured narrative, which owes something to classic film noir, wants to be an updated version of seventies crime. And he succeeds with it. Tarantino would never be able to get away with Dogs having actual tragedy if he weren’t able to sell everything else he packages with that tragedy.

Dogs acknowledges the idea of being outlandish exploitation but the film’s so tightly constructed, Tarantino never lets anything get wild. The film’s most “uncontrolled” sequence, as Michael Madsen does a freestyle torture dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” turns out to be Tarantino’s most controlled sequence in the film’s primary location, where everything is controlled. But with Madsen’s dance, Tarantino takes the time to acknowledge the various realities of the situation. He breaks the movie magic, not because he wants to offer commentary or deconstruct genre, but because the film needs reality. The tragedy doesn’t work with reality. Without the reality, Dogs wouldn’t be difficult. It’d be amusing, sure, but it wouldn’t require the viewer to mentally engage with the film.

And Tarantino starts with those demands on the viewer right off. The first scene of the film demands the viewer make some value judgements on the cast. Harvey Keitel has to be likable, same goes for Tim Roth, even Lawrence Tierney a little. Certain actors just get to be actors, certain actors have to do a bit of a feint, but the scene has a whole bunch to do. It’s the hook. And it’s not in Tarantino’s monologues, it’s how the characters talk to one another, how they react to one another. The rhythm isn’t in one actor’s voice, but in how the banter works.

Many of the actors do get great scenes, some even get great monologues–Harvey Keitel, for instance, just gets tons of great stuff to do in the film. Right from the start, he gets the hardest work opposite Tim Roth and then Steve Buscemi. When Keitel and Madsen finally get around to facing off, there’s so much built up energy, anything seems possible. Of course, anything is not possible, because Tarantino is trying to get things somewhere specific.

Most of the film’s runtime takes place in a warehouse. Most of the film’s present action, once the flashback structure establishes, takes place in various locations. Tarantino takes forever to open up the film. It takes Dogs forever to get to a daytime scene without violence. Tarantino puts off letting the viewer identify with any of the characters. Because Dogs, for the viewer and for the characters, is about sympathy with the devil, taking responsibility for that sympathy and even requesting for that sympathy. It’s really, really good.

Andrzej Sekula’s photography is fine. Sally Menke’s editing is phenomenal. The sets are the real star. David Wasco’s production design. Tarantino shoots on cheap but Dogs never looks it. Wasco and Tarantino make it look like there’s no other way to see this film, no other angles. Tarantino holds his shots, making the hanging clothes or the wash basins extremely important–they burn into the viewer’s mind. Especially in the first act. The film implies a larger world outside itself, in no small part thanks to the set design and decoration; Tarantino asks a lot of the viewer.

And he does reward it. He promises it right off with the actors. Keitel, Buscemi, Chris Penn. They’re doing dynamic, sensational work. Even though the introduction of these characters and their development throughout the film might make them less sympathetic characters, the performances are magnificent. Especially Keitel and Buscemi. And Michael Madsen’s really good. Everyone’s really good. Except Tarantino. He’s really bad at acting. He gives himself a bad part, which is kind of good. Kind of. He’s still bad.

Tim Roth’s great.

Nice support from Randy Brooks and Kirk Baltz. Stephen Wright’s unseen DJ is almost an essential compenent.

Reservoir Dogs is never startling. Tarantino isn’t trying to exploit his viewer, he’s trying to tell a story. It’s not a big story. It’s not a grand story. It’s something of a tragic anecdote. Something tragic that happened to these guys when they were doing a job.

It’s an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange), Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie), Lawrence Tierney (Joe Cabot), Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue), Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Randy Brooks (Holdaway), Kirk Baltz (Marvin) and Steven Wright (K-Billy DJ).


Mystery Train (1989, Jim Jarmusch)

Mystery Train is a comedy. It’s many other things–an examination and comparison of various kinds of differentness–but it’s also a very funny comedy. In fact, Jarmusch keeps characters around for nothing else. Train is the interconnected story of seven people (across three chapters) all culminating at a Memphis hotel. Cinqué Lee is the suffering bellboy, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is the far more chill clerk. Hawkins and Lee get some great scenes together; both actors separately build their performances and then Jarmusch sits them next to each other. It greats a wonderful energy.

With the exception of the first story–which has Nagase Masatoshi and Kudô Yûki as Japanese tourists obsessed with classic rock–all of the characters come defined. Since Train is interconnected and set in the same locations at different times of one day, Jarmusch occasionally introduces characters early and momentarily, but distinctively enough to jump start their character development.

Or, in the case of Joe Strummer’s British emigre, he gets introduced in dialogue.

The first two parts of the film are the most independent. Nagase and Kudô have their own story arc going separate from the location; ditto for Nicoletta Braschi (as an Italian on an unplanned layover) in the second part. When Elizabeth Bracco shows up (halfway through the film), Jarmusch starts revealing how things might come together. And it’s great. What is background in the first and second stories is foreground in the third.

Great acting. Gorgeous photography from Robby Müller.

Train is singular.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by Melody London; music by John Lurie; production designer, Dan Bishop; produced by Jim Stark; released by Orion Classics.

Starring Kudô Yûki (Mitsuko), Nagase Masatoshi (Jun), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (Night Clerk), Cinqué Lee (Bellboy), Nicoletta Braschi (Luisa), Elizabeth Bracco (Dee Dee), Joe Strummer (Johnny), Rick Aviles (Will Robinson), Steve Buscemi (Charlie), Tom Noonan (Man in Arcade Diner), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Ed), Rufus Thomas (Man in Station) and Tom Waits (Radio D.J).


Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

Much–probably most–of Fargo is exceptional. The Coens take over half an hour to bring their protagonist into the movie. They spend that first half hour with the villains, even having time to make said villains simultaneously lovable and even more dangerous. William H. Macy isn’t just some loser who schemes to rip off his father-in-law, he’s a dangerous sociopath. It’s amazing what the Coens can fit behind those goofy accents and the folky talk.

And those levels of Fargo are what make it so fantastic. Frances McDormand isn’t playing a silly sheriff, she’s playing this incredible investigator who just happens to sound like she lives in a waffle commercial. All of the police work in the film is thoroughly executed; the cops aren’t of the Keystone variety.

But the Coens don’t engage with this situation. They don’t force the viewer. They don’t even acknowledge it. They’re playing it straight.

Until the end. McDormand stumbles across the bad guys by accident. Even worse, there was a plot point earlier to set up an actual investigatory discovery of the bad guys and the Coens skip it. Very disappointing.

Otherwise, the film is fantastic. Great photography from Roger Deakins, wonderful score from Carter Burwell. Fargo speeds along too. There’s never a slow moment.

The supporting cast–Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch–is great. Buscemi has some exceptional rants throughout.

McDormand and Macy are both excellent. McDormand even manages to sell the questionable stuff at the end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson) and Steve Park (Mike Yanagita).


Miller’s Crossing (1990, Joel Coen)

A lot of Miller’s Crossing is left unsaid. Between the hard boiled dialogue disguising character motivations and the lengthy shots of Gabriel Byrne silently reflecting, the Coen Brothers invite examination and rumination. They invite it a little too much.

The film’s a perfect object, whether it’s how the opening titles figure into revealing conversation and to the finish or how the frequent fades to black control the viewer’s consumption of the film. All of the performances are outstanding. Every single moment is supports the whole.

So what’s wrong with it? Too much control. Even the craziness–the film examines violence and the men who perform it–is choreographed. It’s an amazing example of filmmaking, but it’s all surface. All of the layers in Miller’s are baked in, not organic. The story’s too tight. A couple cameos in the second half, along with nods to other Coen pictures, offer some calculated relief.

It’s actually kind of stagy.

There’s also a vague homophobic quality… the closeted (it’s the thirties) gay guys are all misogynist psychopaths to one degree or another.

But it’s a beautifully made, beautifully acted film. Byrne’s great in the lead, Marcia Gay Harden is excellent as the girl who comes between him and friend Albert Finney. Finney gives the film’s boldest performance, having to play a dim tough guy.

Jon Polito’s awesome, J.E. Freeman, John Turturro–like I said before, it’s perfect. It’s confident, it’s thorough.

It just doesn’t add up to as much as if it were messy.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), J.E. Freeman (Eddie Dane), Albert Finney (Leo), Mike Starr (Frankie), Al Mancini (Tic-Tac), Richard Woods (Mayor Dale Levander), Thomas Toner (O’Doole) and Steve Buscemi (Mink).


Escape from L.A. (1996, John Carpenter)

Escape from L.A. is an action movie without any real action until the final set piece. And that final set piece is excellent–lots of hang gliders and practical effects. But the rest of the action? It’s terrible CG. Instead of imagining real set pieces, director Carpenter (and co-writers Kurt Russell and Debra Hill) fall back on digital effects.

As a result, there’s almost nothing distinctive about L.A. Until the finish, anyway. The last ten minutes or so are really good.

The film has a number of big problems, but the primary ones are the setup and the geography. As a delayed sequel to Escape from New York, L.A. is a disaster. The opening establishes almost the exact same situation as the first film, which seems unlikely but also reeks of a lack of imagination.

Then there’s the geography. The film’s setting is so big and so varied, it’s hard to imagine Russell’s anti-hero having any trouble escaping from it. So the script has to confine him with a rapidly decreasing countdown.

There aren’t any good supporting characters–though a lot of the supporting performances are good–because L.A. never takes time to enjoy itself. It feels like a chore for the filmmakers.

The best supporting turns are from Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Valeria Golino, Stacy Keach and Georges Corraface. Corraface and Golino are shockingly good; Fonda has lots of fun.

Also unimaginative is Lawrence G. Paull’s production design.

L.A. is a pointless, disappointing but vaguely inoffensive trip.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, based on characters created by Carpenter and Nick Castle; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Shirley Walker and Carpenter; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Hill and Russell; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Stacy Keach (Cmdr. Malloy), Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie), Valeria Golino (Taslima), Peter Fonda (Pipeline), Pam Grier (Hershe Las Palmas), Michelle Forbes (Brazen), Georges Corraface (Cuervo Jones), Bruce Campbell (The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills), A.J. Langer (Utopia), Leland Orser (Test Tube) and Cliff Robertson (The President).


Coffee and Cigarettes II (1989, Jim Jarmusch)

Coffee and Cigarettes II stars twins Cinqué Lee and Joie Lee as twins having coffee in Memphis. Why are they in Memphis? They don’t know, but it seems like it’s Cinqué’s fault. Jarmusch le’s the twins bicker though most of the short, which is funny enough but then there’s Steve Buscemi too.

Buscemi’s playing the annoying (local) waiter. His Tennessee accent is shaky but his rant about Elvis is awesome. Cigarettes feels tailor-made for a film class, with white Buscemi physically separating the black Lee twins. The banter could also be plotted as to how it goes back and forth.

But spending too much time on Jarmusch’s process distracts from the short. The twins are great–particularly Joie–and the short’s rather a fun time.

There are some outstanding shots too, which Jarmusch uses both for comic relief and narrative pacing. Cigarettes is a fabulous use of eight minutes.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by Melody London; produced by Rudd Simmons and Jim Stark.

Starring Joie Lee (Good Twin), Cinqué Lee (Evil Twin) and Steve Buscemi (Danny the waiter).


The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)

There are a lot of interesting things about what the Coens do with The Big Lebowski. The foremost thing has to be how, even though the film is incredibly thoughtful and complex in its homages, the Coens aren’t exclusionary about it. If you don’t know it’s Raymond Chandler, it’s okay. If you don’t know zero budget Westerns had narrators, it’s okay.

If you do, you understand more about what they’re doing, but you don’t better understand the film. Because knowing where they’re coming from isn’t the point. The movie’s the point.

But being accepting of populist viewers aside, the Coens also do something very interesting with the dialogue. When people listen to other people, they’re hearing it for the first time, just like the viewer. Even though John Goodman’s amusing lunatic has been friends with Jeff Bridges’s character for untold years… Bridges’s reactions are in line with the audiences. He’s stunned—just like the viewer—at the stupid things Goodman says.

It’s subtle, but with the film starting in the first scene.

Bridges and Goodman are both great, as is Steve Buscemi as the third in their triumvirate. Of course, he has nothing to say, which is kind of the point.

In the supporting roles, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Thewlis are all fantastic.

Lebowski, now a pop culture icon, succeeds because it embraces pop culture (and assumes everyone should know LA culture). It’s excellent.

Except, however, when there’s a nonsensical reference to an as yet unestablished subplot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes and Tricia Cooke; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Ethan Coen; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Steve Buscemi (Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn), Peter Stormare (Karl Hungus), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Jon Polito (Da Fino), David Thewlis (Knox Harrington), Jack Kehler (Marty) and Sam Elliott (The Stranger).


Trees Lounge (1996, Steve Buscemi)

I suppose it would be possible for Trees Lounge to be more depressing. It’s a character study; the epical part of the narrative forces the protagonist (writer, director, star Buscemi) to realize he does not just dislike himself, he’s never really liked himself, and he’s not just hurting people now, he’s always been hurting people.

Maybe the most stunning thing about the film–besides Buscemi’s direction of actors–is how he inserts humor into the mix. There’s a running gag with a kid never getting ice cream and when Buscemi falls asleep drunk at a wake, it’s played humorously. The first part is more “cleanly” funny (it also foreshadows how people in general do not think about how events effect others–something very important in the narrative towards the end), while the second is awkward. The film’s full of desperate alcoholics and occasionally Buscemi makes them funny, giving the viewer little warning.

Buscemi juxtaposes his character’s arc against Mark Boone Junior’s. The difference is in the self-realization (Trees Lounge might even have a happy ending, there’s about a fifteen percent chance).

He spends the first forty-five minutes of the film exploring the ground situation, then introduces one event to stir up the pot. It’s a lovely plot structure, made perfect by the excellent dialogue.

Amazing supporting performances abound–Boone is great, as is (especially) Chloë Sevigny. Daniel Baldwin and Mimi Rogers have superb small parts. Samuel L. Jackson is outstanding in a cameo.

It’s a fantastic, depressing film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Steve Buscemi; director of photography, Lisa Rinzler; edited by Kate Williams; music by Evan Lurie; production designer, Steve Rosenzweig; produced by Chris Hanley and Brad Wyman; released by Orion Classics.

Starring Steve Buscemi (Tommy), Mark Boone Junior (Mike), Chloë Sevigny (Debbie), Anthony LaPaglia (Rob), Elizabeth Bracco (Theresa), Michael Buscemi (Raymond), Eszter Balint (Marie), Daniel Baldwin (Jerry), Mimi Rogers (Patty), Carol Kane (Connie), Debi Mazar (Crystal), Kevin Corrigan (Matthew), Samuel L. Jackson (Wendell) and Seymour Cassel (Uncle Al).


Con Air (1997, Simon West), the extended edition

I loathed Con Air back when I first saw it. I’ve only seen it that one time, opening night thirteen years ago. And many of my complaints at the time still hold true–Nicolas Cage is awful, John Cusack is awful (worse, his jokes fall flat), Simon West is a terrible director (but thirteen years later he’s not as bad as the mainstream directors who’ve followed) and the music is bad. All those complaints do hold true. The writing’s really bad in parts too, mostly as how it relates to Cage and his wife. Monica Potter plays the wife.

But it’s a whole lot of fun to watch John Malkovich go crazy as a poorly written bad guy. Malkovich is so good chewing up the scenery here, I realized him never getting to play Lex Luthor is one of the great Hollywood tragedies. I don’t know if he had fun here, but it sure seems like it.

The supporting cast is mostly impeccable–I haven’t seen one of these Bruckheimer super-cast movies in a while–except Colm Meaney. Meaney is awful.

But Ving Rhames, Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin and M.C. Gainey? They’re all amazing. Or Steve Buscemi, charged with making a Dahmer-like serial killer likable? Buscemi practically makes the movie on his own.

One of the other big failures is the CG and the composite shots. And the hair. Cage’s extensions look ridiculous and Cusack looks like he refused to cut his hair so they greased it back.

It’s diverting Hollywood junk food.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Simon West; written by Scott Rosenberg; director of photography, David Tattersall; edited by Chris Lebenzon, Steve Mirkovich and Glen Scantlebury; music by Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Cameron Poe), John Cusack (U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin), John Malkovich (Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom), Ving Rhames (Nathan ‘Diamond Dog’ Jones), Nick Chinlund (William ‘Billy Bedlam’ Bedford), Steve Buscemi (Garland ‘The Marietta Mangler’ Greene), Colm Meaney (DEA Agent Duncan Malloy), Rachel Ticotin (Guard Sally Bishop), Dave Chappelle (Joe ‘Pinball’ Parker), Mykelti Williamson (Mike ‘Baby-O’ O’Dell), Danny Trejo (Johnny ‘Johnny-23’ Baca), M.C. Gainey (Swamp Thing), Steve Eastin (Guard Falzon), Renoly Santiago (Ramon ‘Sally-Can’t Dance’ Martinez) and Monica Potter (Tricia Poe).


Desperado (1995, Robert Rodriguez)

Between Joaquim de Almeida and Carlos Gómez, it certainly appears Robert Rodriguez likes good actors. He even gets a great performance from Cheech Marin, but I suppose Marin didn’t need much direction.

So with those three good performances and two good actors–de Almeida even does well with Rodriguez’s atrocious dialogue, something not even Steve Buscemi can do–it makes one wonder what Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek are doing in Desperado.

Banderas’s casting I can understand, he was a star on the rise at the time, but Rodriguez discovered Hayek and has been subjecting the world to her terrible acting ever since. Banderas is awful, comically strutting along like a supermodel acting butch, but Hayek is much, much worse. Banderas has three honest moments. Hayek doesn’t even blink honestly.

Hayek doesn’t show up until almost halfway in, so the first half is a lot better than the rest, even if Quentin Tarantino shows up for a terrible cameo. I was a big El Mariachi fan back before Desperado came out, but after seeing this one in the theater, I don’t think I’ve seen either.

Maybe if the only problem was the writing, it’d be more palatable, but Rodriguez is a rather mediocre action director here. The shoot-outs bore–Banderas isn’t some unstoppable killing machine, his opponents are just slow, stupid and overweight. His successes are always based on luck.

The last half takes forever, about thirty events a minute. If you like lame melodrama, it must be lovely.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by Robert Rodriguez; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; music by Los Lobos; production designer, Cecilia Montiel; produced by Rodriguez and Bill Borden; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Antonio Banderas (El Mariachi), Salma Hayek (Carolina), Joaquim de Almeida (Bucho), Cheech Marin (Short Bartender), Steve Buscemi (Buscemi), Carlos Gómez (Right Hand), Quentin Tarantino (Pick-Up Guy) and Danny Trejo (Navajas).


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